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Bristol Mayor Says School Board Leaders Should Resign Over Deficit

Frustrated by an unexpected $2.4 million deficit last year’s school budget, Mayor Ken Cockayne is calling on leaders of the board of education to quit.

“They didn’t even know this until last month when our finance department found it. Before that, they were saying there’s no problem,” Cockayne said. “I said the leadership should resign, but I haven’t heard anything. I’d be quiet, too, if I lost $2.4 million.”

But board Chairman Chris Wilson and Vice Chairman Karen Vibert say they’re just as troubled by the shortfall, and don’t plan to leave.

“We’re frustrated and concerned about the deficit and about the last-minute notification,” Wilson said Wednesday.

“We welcome the operational audit to see what internal controls need to be in place. We’ll await the outcome to see what changes will be made — but Karen and I have no intention of resigning,” he said. “We relied upon paid professionals to provide us information and unfortunately that information was not accurate.”

The city plans to have an accounting firm start working in October on a detailed audit of the school system’s books for 2016-17 as well as 2015-16.

Nine companies have submitted bids; prices range from $22,000 to $139,000. Some bidders quoted only hourly rates and not a final figure.

The finance board’s banking and audit committee is scheduled to meet Sept. 26 at 5:30 p.m. at city hall to review the bids. Cockayne hopes to narrow down the list of finalists in time for work to begin in early or mid-October.

Cockayne, a Republican, and Wilson, a Democrat, have clashed before over union contracts, special-education funding and other issues, and ran against each other in the 2013 mayoral election.

Cockayne said the shortfall is particularly troubling because the city could face a significant cut in aid as a result of the state’s budget crisis. The city is paying the $2.4 million to balance last year’s books, but now can’t use the money as a buffer against state cutbacks.

“We were planning to set that money aside for whatever the state does, but now it’s been used for the deficit,” said Cockayne, who has asked department heads for contingency budgets in case of bad news from the state Capitol. “We won’t know what we have to do until the state decides, but I can say a supplemental tax is absolutely the last resort. I’ll try everything in my power to avoid that.”

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